We drink wine, but do we love it?

The origin of this post is a thought-provoking article I read yesterday by Ryan Opaz, co-founder of the Iberian wine website Catavino.  Ryan states unequivocally that Spain is a wine consuming country but not a wine loving country.  I agree and would like to make some additional comments about this parlous state of affairs in Rioja.

Yesterday while doing some food shopping I decided to check out the wine aisle in the supermarket across the street from our apartment building. I don’t usually buy wine at the supermarket and yesterday confirmed the reason for this.

First of all, there were more offerings of brands from outside Rioja than of wines from our own region, and sadly, none of the brands attracted the slightest bit of interest. An attempt to broaden the taste of wine drinkers in Rioja?  I don’t think so.  I firmly believe that supermarkets are trying to make us drink what they want to sell us rather than what we want to drink, and tell us it’s for our own good.  A large section of the aisle was devoted to the supermarket’s own labels, both the basic supermarket brands and their discount brands, while the presence of winery-owned labels was limited to high-volume wines of average quality.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything.

Last night, while having a drink with my buddy Alberto Gil, who writes about wine for our local newspaper LA RIOJA, we got into a conversation about a new wine from Bodegas Lan – D12 – that I had seen at a local wine bar. The wine’s story caught my eye: the cellarmaster traditionally stored the best wines from a vintage in Tank 12, hence D (for ‘depósito’) 12.  I liked the wine.  Alberto’s comment was that if we wanted to buy a bottle locally we would either have to get it from the winery or from the local distributor.  It would probably not be available at retail in Logroño. And according to Alberto, no one here seems to be interested in stocking these wines.

At retail in Logroño?  That also made me think.  How many really good wine shops are there here?  I can think of one (El Universal de los Vinos) with a good but very small selection and two shops in Haro, both of which specialize in old Rioja vintages but none featuring new products from Rioja wineries.

To buy these, you either have to shop online (Lavinia and Vila Viniteca are two good places) or go to Madrid, Barcelona, London or New York (and be prepared to pay a premium!)

To return to my original point, the absence of a community of curious, passionate wine lovers in La Rioja is the reason why we are offered such a poor selection of wines.  We do have several events a year where producers are encouraged to show their best offerings, but unfortunately, after the tastings, no offer to buy is made to the attendees.

The nadir of the ‘we drink it but don’t love it’ attitude was expressed by a middle-aged man who stopped by the stand I was managing at a local wine fair several years ago.

“Give me a glass of wine”, he ordered. (Note the absence of the word ‘please’)

I replied, while biting my tongue, “This is a 2001 crianza from Bodegas X, made with tempranillo and aged for 16 months in American oak.”

“Save the explanation, just give me the *?+#%!! wine”, was the irate response.

Here was a true wine drinker.

In the meantime, I’ll try to find a bottle of D12. When I do, you’ll hear about it.

Gary Vee talks to María J

I’m a big fan of López de Heredia Riojas and an even bigger fan of the winery’s managing director/spokesperson María José López de Heredia.  As you know, María José has made traditional Riojas her family’s cause celèbre, speaking passionately about them to distributors, consumers and journalists around the world. Last week she appeared on Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV.  It was love at first sight.

At first it seemed incongruous to have one of the wine world’s most conservative, traditional producers on what is arguably the wine world’s most progressive, hip shows, but after the interview started, I realized that María José and Gary enjoyed every minute of the interview and it gave the winery more PR mileage than a 95 by Robert Parker.

In a crowded place like the wine business it’s essential to tell a good story.  You need one to get past the biggest gatekeepers in our industry, the distributors, and once past the gate, so to speak, you need a good story to put the wine on retailers’ shelves, on restaurant wine lists, to get consumers to buy the first bottle and then, the all-important repeat business.

I don’t know anyone in the business who tells a winery story better than María José.

If you can spare 45 minutes, watch these two episodes of Wine Library TV.  You, like Gary’s 800,000 daily followers, will learn a lot about Rioja, López de Heredia and one family’s 140-year passion for its wines.



Lessons from the other side of the world


One of the things I like most about working with the Great Wine Capitals Global Network is to visit other wine regions to hear their story, taste their wines and compare how they take care of visitors – it’s a great reality check and benchmarking exercise against our efforts here in Rioja.

We recently spent a week on New Zealand’s South Island.  We were awed by the spectacular scenery, great wines and devoted wineries and returned with lots of ideas and food for thought regarding Rioja.

The first thing that hit us between the eyes was how unencumbered New Zealand wineries are by tradition and how they use technology to get things right the first time.  For example, although vines began to be planted in Marlborough in the 1970s and the first pinot noir vines were planted in Central Otago in 1981, both Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Central Otago pinot noir are already well-known to wine lovers around the world. We were amazed to hear that there are only 1.600 hectares planted to grapevines in Central Otago.

A second fact is that wineries are focused on what they do best. Big brands such as Montana, Cloudy Bay and Oyster Bay created demand for New Zealand wines but I was surprised to learn that most wineries are small and focused on maintaining a premium image for their brands and their region.

This is a lesson Rioja could benefit from.  At a wine industry seminar, speakers from both large and small wineries made the following interesting points:

  • Overdeliver at a specific price point
  • Don’t assume growth – boom and bust cycles are caused when people see an upward trend and everyone wants to buy into it (that is, plant heavily and increase production)
  • Emphasize premiumization-drive value, not volume
  • Tell your story passionately, emphasizing place, vineyard, and person
  • Refocus on core markets, but spend some time on a few emerging ones.

We were also impressed with the quality of the ‘cellar-door’ (New World winespeak for winery tourism) experience.  Every winery we visited was focused on good service and making the visitor come away with a meaningful experience.  Sure, the wineries sold wine, t-shirts and other merchandise, but we learned a lot and came away as real fans of these wines.

If you get the chance to visit New Zealand, go as soon as you can.  It took us over 30 hours to get there from Rioja but the trip was worth every penny.  We’re already planning to go back!